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Pay it forward: At Heartland, foresight on bill processing

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Mobile payment adoption is slow, but Bob Carr says it’s only a matter of time before smartphones replace customers’ wallets.
Mobile payment adoption is slow, but Bob Carr says it’s only a matter of time before smartphones replace customers’ wallets. - (AARON HOUSTON)

Princeton-based Heartland Payment Systems has grown with changing times, from $3 million in annual revenue in its founding in 1997 to nearly $600 million now.

Looking ahead, Heartland eyes further growth by jumping ahead of another burgeoning trend: the shift toward mobile payments.

Heartland is forming partnerships with companies specializing in this space. This month, it teamed with Austin, Texas-based Tabbedout, the maker of a mobile application that allows consumers to open and pay bar and restaurant tabs from their smartphones.

The app is intended to do away with the exchange of physical checks and credit cards that occur between waiters and patrons, among other things. Heartland will deploy a sales force of about 800 nationwide to pitch the product, which is being rolled out in New York, Texas and elsewhere this fall.

Tabbedout CEO Alex Broeker said Heartland stands out among competitors in its attentiveness to both technological evolution and the needs of small to midsize merchants.

Heartland CEO Bob Carr said mobile adoption is taking root slowly, as consumers still prefer conventional methods. But the company sees the trend as irreversible, so it works to identify new companies that are pushing innovations.

Heartland's deal with Tabbedout follows a $20 million investment it made this month in early-stage company Leaf, which provides mobile payment technologies and business-oriented tablets that run on the cloud.

Carr attributes Heartland's success to providing simplicity in a technologically complex world.

One example: Carr said Heartland cultivates loyalty by having sales staffers explain the multiple layers of charges involved in the processing of credits cards involving three parties: the card brand, the issuing bank and the payment processor. This is often the third-biggest expense for merchants, behind labor and materials.

Carr said because most costs are traditionally packaged in a bundled rate, it is difficult for merchant to break down costs line by line.

That makes it harder for merchants to track whether they are getting a good deal from the sellers of card services.

Heartland solves that bewilderment by doing so for the merchants. The end result allows merchants to monitor costs and negotiate better deals.

John Marshall, owner of Main Street, which operates a bistro, bakery and catering businesses in the Princeton area, said Heartland provides the most thorough and transparent billing breakdown he has seen.

“I can do a self audit of my transactions,” Marshall said. “I can see Heartland is not playing with me. That's what I find very refreshing after having been burned and stung so many times.”

Marshall has been doing business with Heartland for eight years and said his business saved about 20 percent in annual card processing costs since then.

Now that consumer are increasingly ditching plastic in favor of mobile devices linked to credit card accounts, Marshall said he's happy to deal with Heartland, knowing they are atop the transition.

“I believe that with this generation, the way they are equipped with smartphones, that plastic is going to go the way of LP records,” Marshall said.

E-mail to: tomz@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @biztzanki

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